A couple of weeks ago, Cinemateca showed Bergman's "Skammen" ("Shame"), which is an extraordinary movie. It's about war. With a lot of nudity. And, because we don't know which war it is about, where, when, why or which regimes or armies are facing each other, "Shame" is a movie about all wars. Because it came out in 1968, it was sometimes seen, at the time, as a movie against all wars, an oposition to the Vietnam war.
"Shame" isn't, however, essentially, a movie about the war or, rather, it's not a movie completely about war. There is a couple of musicians, Eva (Liv Ullmann) and Jan (Max von Sydow, who played chess with Death in "Det Sjunde inseglet" (The Seventh Seal) and, sixteen years later, the Hollywood-esque priest in "The Exorcist"), she's a cellist and he's violinist, who live in a farm house since the war forced the dismantlement of the orchestra where they played. They're young, they plant fruit and vegetables that they sell at the nearest market, they breed animals, they survive.
The war has been going on for about five or six years when the movie begins and has affected them so deeply that they have been forced to get out of the city and look for another way of earning their life. For people who live at peace it seems a lot, but it's little, very little when compared to what comes next. Even Eva and Jan live, at the beginning of the movie, in a vague conscience of war: they moved but persisted, you could even say they liked the life they led and their routine and rythm; and their biggest influence is connected with the impossibility of having children while things don't calm down.
Bergman complains, in "Images", that the first part of the movie, the one that tells us from where we have set out with Eva and Jan, is longwinded and lousy, "a prologue that is prolonged indefinately". I haven't compared the duration of this part with the one where the war is shown and everything is changed, but the latter seemed much longer; in a moment, even, when logic made me guess what was going to happen next, I felt that I was going to be watching the movie for centuries and that I couldn't do it, that it was too much.
What starts out with this movie, what is new, is the extreme violence of war and the direct violence against Eva and Jan, and the corruption and decadence of both of them. Whether we see them both as a couple or as two individuals, the destruction we witness is corrosive from this moment on.
We aren't told a lot about the reasons why the war enters such a ferocious stage - Eva and Jan's radio and telephone are broken and their travels to the nearest town, outside the island, to sell what they produce are few and brief. Harsh bombings kill most of the population and lead to a series of random arrests, with torture and a few deaths and, in the end, there is a most politically manipulative twist: after setting a stage that makes us believe that the prisoners - a few dozens of people that are the total population of the island and the adject region after the attacks - would be shot, the authorities make it known that, although they were scheduled to be shot, the government had decided to forgive their offences - which offences exactly? We don't know.
This twist of events has its effects on the couple and triggers the beginning of their moral downfall. Arrested that morning, they had been interrogated first about an interview Eva had given, coerced and frightened, after a bombing, to a group of rebels. In the intervew, Eva had stated that he and Jan were apolitical, but the images had been set up with a fake sound of another woman's voice encouraging the enemy, which incriminated Eva as a traitor. She tried to defend herself - "but that isn't my voice" - but, in return, she was beaten and thrown out of the room, where Jan was then beaten. At night, starving and scared, they were forgiven.
Jacobi (Gunnar Björnstrand) is the small local all-mighty that, in the name of the merciful Government, releases the prisoners and that, in the same night, orders that Eva and Jan be released and immediately taken home. He starts being a regular visitor of the couple and becomes Eva's lover, which might never have happened if not for the fascination caused in the night he forgave them. The reasons why they were accused and forgiven is hidden from Eva and Jan; but the fear and relieve - together and inexplicable - makes them, when they are sent home, physically free, feel special and sides them tactically with the power.
Although it appears, with Bergman, in the people of Eva and Jan, this false sense of being special is universal in wars and dictatorships and that's what explains the behaviour of people who stand by the power that crushes, kills and oppresses their neighbours, friends and brothers. Having no political affiliations, Jan and Eva were easier to corrupt, but, even if they had keen political awareness, they wouldn't be less vulnerable: fear, at its limit, allied to the most primal instincts, can operate internal revolutions, able to produce big, and not always beautiful, revelations. That's what this movie is about. In this perspective, war is a good setting, but not the only possible one.